To say that 2011 was a momentous year in international affairs would be a grand understatement. The past twelve months have been a potent testament to tenacity, to willpower, to rebirth, and to change.
Early 2011 was defined by the stirrings, and later successes, of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and many other nations, a resounding and robust call for change was heard. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, longtime dictators were denounced for their corruption and crimes, and forcefully driven from power. The world looked on in astonishment and trepidation as power was wrested from Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. These events represent not only a dramatic and revolutionary force, but also a profound and captivating strength of human spirit. The outpouring of revolutionary rhetoric from the affected countries — most notably in Egypt — on Facebook and Twitter represented a novel opportunity to observe the unfolding of the emotions, conflicts, and triumphs of the events in real time.
In Syria, the battle for justice, civil rights, and autonomy continues amid bloodshed and treason. Despite attacks on revolutionaries and civilians by Syrian army tanks, countless arrests and protests, and calls for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the nation remains in a state of emergency and uprising. The Arab League strongly condemned Assad’s behavior, removing Syria from the body pending further action. Whether Syrians will follow in the bold footsteps of Egyptians, Libyans, and Tunisians is yet unknown.
Thousands of miles east, an equally frightening disaster unfolded in Japan, beginning on 11 March, 2011 with the onset of a deadly 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The resulting 23-foot tsunami caused widespread property loss and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, leaving 15,839 Japanese citizens dead and 3,647 missing. A nuclear crisis arose from a failure in the cooling systems in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on the eastern coastline. Evaluation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessed the reactor’s failure and leakage on par with the toxicological effects of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion.
In addition to homelessness and economic strife, Japan has struggled to combat the widespread marine, air, and agricultural consequences of the external release of a substantive amount of the reactor’s core material. Marshaling a force of 100,000 aid troops — the largest deployed since the second World War — to bolster the relief effort, Japan has striven to alleviate suffering precipitated by the tsunami. Full recovery is not predicted soon, but the rebuilding process is expected to continue with determination. The tragedy has also spurred widespread anti-nuclear protests, most notably in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in March the timely closure of German nuclear power plants as a result of the Fukushima crisis. Merkel maintained that the bold move was motivated purely by safety concerns, and assured citizens that nuclear power will not be imported from neighboring countries.
The United States stands at a defining moment in foreign policy. The nation that inspired a nearly unparalleled surge of patriotism by successfully eliminating the threat of Osama bin Laden should seek to balance this power with moderation and a renewed approach to the Middle East. With the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the reconstruction of several Middle Eastern nations, and an increasingly modern face of the Arab world, America must choose its course wisely. By protesting the addition of Palestine to the UNESCO — a body dedicated to peaceful collaboration through education and the arts — the United States has brusquely discarded an avenue to discourse and deliberation with Israeli and Palestinian neighbors. Violence in Iran and the beginning of UN-sponsored talks between the IAEA and Tehran illuminate a delicate balance of power and deep-seated frustration.
The United States should pursue cautious and consistent diplomacy in the Middle East, engaging both governments and civilians through peaceful and cultural ties rather than enacting aggressive measures. By following the model of nations such as Turkey, whose successful diplomacy with Iran centered on a conscientious effort to interact with multiple governmental and civilian organizations, we can proceed to a state of nonviolent relations. Now, more than ever in the past ten years, dialogue must be maintained as a key element of American diplomacy.
Our contact with nations with whom our relations have been historically poor is significant not only as an extension of discourse and negotiation, but also as a matter of safety. In the event of a diplomatic or military crisis, such as Iran’s alleged role in the assassination of the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil, open ties with the country or government in question will expedite and ease resolution. Building and extending trust within the Middle East is a key step to developing America’s role and reputation as a peaceful, non-imperialist entity. These lessons will be especially important to understand during the 2012 presidential election this November, bearing in mind that a cautious foreign policy does not belie weakness or infectivity.
In light of the decisive and pivotal events of 2011, we as a nation and as a global community have experienced a revitalizing new perspective on the power of persistence, justice, and human spirit. As we continue to carve and refine our place in a post-Arab Spring world, tolerance, perseverance, and dignity will continue to serve as valuable creeds.